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Should pilots have a separate medical certification for the night shift?

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A run of the mill runway excursion at the Malmo airport in Sweden early this year brought to light an interesting question -- should pilots have to undergo regular screening for their physiological aptitude to work the graveyard shift?

The action stems from the Swedish Accident Investigation Authority’s analysis of a runway excursion by an Amapola Flyg Fokker 50 cargo aircraft at Malmo Airport at 1:44 a.m. the morning of Jan. 10, 2013.

The aircraft, en route from Sundsvall to Malmo, experienced a cabin depressurization at altitude and performed an emergency descent to 8,000 ft. The two pilots continued the flight to Malmo, but landed with crosswinds exceeding the maximum-allowable values per the Swedish airline’s standard operating procedures for the twin-engine turboprop. Exacerbating the weathervane effect of the wind was the wet runway and the use of reverse-thrust below 60 kt. There were no injuries and the aircraft was not damaged.

Investigators in the final report say the serious incident was caused by a sudden “severe” gust of wind during the rollout. Contributing to the incident was the crew’s lack of sleep, “which probably affected decision-making and attention, which in turn led to the landing being performed under conditions that exceeded the operator’s crosswind limitation for the aircraft,” the Authority says.

Of broader interest in the report is whether Swedish airlines should be providing special medical reviews for pilots who regularly operate between the hours of 10 p.m. and 7 a.m.

In the final report on the Malmo incident, the Authority says “civil flight personnel in night work who are not offered a medical examination” that covers “medical suitability for working at night” could pose a potential safety risk to aviation.

While the Swedish Transport Agency regulates the six-month medical reviews required of pilots (U.S. airline pilots are required to get a 1st class medical every six months), the Swedish Work Environment Authority, which covers “employees in general,” has a requirement that employees, including pilots, who work at night “are to be offered regular medical examinations by their employer.” There is no parallel requirement for U.S. pilots.

The special medical review must be given free of charge and must cover at a minimum the occupational history, disease history and “relevant information on the medical and social circumstances and physical routine status” for the employee to determine whether there are “particular risks of ill health or accident through night work.” 

Night work is defined as spending more than three hours of the workday operating between 10 p.m. and 7 a.m., or more than 38% of annual working hours during those hours. “According to the duty schedule for the past year, the crew in question mainly performed night work, but had not been offered any such health check,” the Accident Investigation Authority states. There is no corresponding Swedish regulation grounding employees who do not obtain the medical review for night work.

To shed more light on the matter, the Investigation Authority has asked the Swedish Transport Agency, in cooperation with the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) and the Swedish Work Environment Authority, to determine an employer’s obligation to “offer flight personnel within civil aviation in night work a medical examination for work environment reasons.”

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